Cardinal Kasper’s intellect, attitude could influence conclave

By Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- German Cardinal Walter Kasper is known for his warm smile, keen intellect and deep commitment to Christian unity, but also for a sense of realism, which does not negate respect for others but is clear about the limits of change possible in the Catholic Church.

Cardinals Walter Kasper of Germany leaves St. Peter's Basilica. (CNS photo from Reuters)

Since 2001 the 72-year-old theologian has been president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and president of the Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews.

As members of the College of Cardinals prepared for the April 18 conclave to elect a new pope, Italian newspapers began listing Cardinal Kasper as the possible choice of cardinals looking for a pope who would defend the Catholic faith while listening to others.

"He is a man of proven Catholic orthodoxy, but one who does not leave any path unexplored," said an ecumenist who has worked closely with Cardinal Kasper. "He treats everyone with great respect, but is very realistic about knowing what is possible."

The cardinal's stature as a theologian combined with his open pastoral style when he was bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, Germany, but especially his close relationship with Pope John Paul II meant he was a respected voice within the conclave.

Even as the aging and ailing pope allowed more and more issues to be handled by the heads of Vatican offices, he continued to meet regularly with Cardinal Kasper to discuss progress and problems in the church's ecumenical dialogues, especially with the Russian Orthodox Church.

While devoting his energy to seeking unity with other Christians, Cardinal Kasper has made it clear that the unity Christ desires for his disciples must be based on faith, not compromise.

Ecumenism, he said at conference in November, is not a process through which "the deposit of older traditions is felt to be outdated and is discarded in the name of a so-called progressive understanding of the faith."

"Where this occurs," he said, "there is a real danger of relativism and indifference, of a 'cheap ecumenism,' which in the end makes itself redundant," because if the core of one's faith does not matter, then why bother to be Christian at all?

In his different careers as theologian, bishop and Vatican official, Cardinal Kasper sometimes offered opinions at variance with predominant Vatican thinking on sensitive church issues.

Cardinal Kasper and another respected German theologian, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, engaged in a lively public debate in 2001 over the roles of the local church and the universal church.

In an unusual move for two top Vatican officials, the respectful, but sharp debate was conducted in the pages of scholarly magazines and at conferences where one or the other spoke.

Cardinal Kasper opposed what he called a "one-sided emphasis" on the universal church and a corresponding decline in the authority of local bishops around the world.

Cardinal Ratzinger argued that one could not deny the primacy of the universal church over the local church, especially because the church is a reality that transcends geographical limits.

The 2001 debate was not the first time the two presented well-reasoned arguments on different sides of a church issue.

In 1993, Cardinal Kasper was one of three German bishops who allowed divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion as long as they believed in conscience that their first marriage was invalid.

The policy in Germany was changed a year later at the Vatican's request, but Cardinal Kasper said at the time that the question still needed pastoral and theological attention.

Not long after being named secretary of the Christian unity office in 1999, Cardinal Kasper publicly criticized a Vatican document signed by Cardinal Ratzinger, whom Cardinal Kasper has known for some 40 years.

In a series of public appearances in Germany, Cardinal Kasper said the document, "Dominus Iesus," a declaration that said Protestant communities were not, properly speaking, "churches," lacked sensitivity and was "too brief" in describing the relations between the Catholic Church and other Christian communities.

At the same time, the ecumenist made it clear his complaints were with the document's tone, not its content, which he said "correctly rejects" attitudes downplaying the need for truth in dialogue.

His outspokenness on sensitive issues has attracted repeated German media attempts to pin him down on the ideological spectrum, but he told reporters in 1999 that he rejects the "conservative versus progressive" schema.

"The current crisis (in the church) is primarily a crisis of faith. Concern for preservation of the faith may mark one as a conservative, but I am convinced that one can only conserve what one simultaneously renews," he said.

"One must renew one's personal faith, but also the structures," he said.

Born in 1933 in Heidenheim, Germany, Walter Kasper was ordained to the priesthood in 1957. He worked for a year in a parish before returning to studies, earning a doctorate in dogmatic theology from the University of Tubingen.

While a doctoral student, Cardinal Kasper was research assistant to then-Father Leo Scheffczyk, a noted theologian with traditional leanings, and to Father Hans Kung, who later had his license to teach as a Catholic theologian withdrawn by the Vatican because of his views on issues such as birth control and papal infallibility.

Cardinal Scheffczyk was made a cardinal in 2001 alongside his former pupil.

Cardinal Kasper taught dogmatic theology for six years at the University of Munster, then returned to Tubingen to teach the same subject for nearly 20 years. He also taught at The Catholic University of America, in Washington, as a visiting professor, 1983-84.

He has received honorary doctorates from The Catholic University of America and St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore and has published hundreds of scholarly and theological books, articles and reviews. He also served as a member of the International Theological Commission.

His academic career ended in 1989 when he was named bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, Germany's fourth-largest diocese, with more than 2 million Catholics.

During his 10 years as residential bishop, Cardinal Kasper served the German bishops' conference as vice chairman of the doctrinal commission and as chairman of the international church policy commission.

He was Catholic co-chairman of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity, a dialogue group sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican, when it drafted a milestone accord in 1998 on the long-disputed doctrine of justification.

He is a member of the congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith and for Eastern Churches.


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